Earlier today, a pipe bomb tore through the popular Erawan Shrine in downtown Bangkok, killing
at least 22 20 people and injuring at least 125 more. The shrine, dedicated to the Hindu god Brahma, was built in the 1950s and has thousands of visitors every day in spite of the fact that Thailand is a majority Buddhist country (arguably, its main function is as a tourist site rather than as a religious one). This may be the worst terrorist attack in Bangkok’s history and is certainly one of the worst in Thailand’s history.
So far nobody has claimed responsibility for the attack. It’s an unfortunate fact of modern life that many people hear the word “terrorism” these days and immediately think of Islam, but in this case that connection seems like a reach. Thailand has had problems with occasionally violent separatist Muslim Malays in the south going back to the 1960s, but an attack in Bangkok would be a dramatic escalation in that conflict; Malay-related violence has almost entirely been confined to southern Thailand and has heretofore been predominantly nationalistic in nature, not religious. Still, obviously you can’t take anything for granted in a world where competing transnational jihad groups are always looking for new vistas upon which to unleash their horrors. Another Muslim-related theory that is interesting but also unlikely is that this was the work of Uyghur separatists from China. Attacking Thailand wouldn’t seem to do much for Uyghur separatism in China until you consider that many of the tourists who frequent the Erawan Shrine are Chinese. Still, this seems like a longshot.
The likeliest cause of the attack is actually not religious at all. You may recall that Thailand experienced a military coup last May. Well, it’s been over a year since that coup, and not only is Thailand still stuck with a military dictatorship (led by would-be soap opera writer Prayuth Chan-ocha), but its human rights situation is actually steadily deteriorating. The deposed prime minister, Yingluck Shinawatra, and her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra (who was PM himself from 2001 until another military coup forced him out of power in 2006) have a lot of support among Thailand’s rural citizens, who tend to be much poorer than their urban contemporaries. Thailand has been caught up in a struggle between supporters of the Shinawatras and (mostly urban) supporters of the opposition (i.e., the military) since Thaksin’s term. If politics are behind this attack, it would not be the first time that said struggle has turned violent on the streets of Bangkok.